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by Simon Tolkien
Minotaur Books, April 2010
336 pages
ISBN: 031253907X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE INHERITANCE is decidedly difficult to classify, comprising as it does elements of a classic murder mystery, a suspense novel, an action thriller, a bit of history, and scraps of a love story. There's an old joke about how write a commercial novel, which said that since the three most popular topics on the best-seller list were medicine, Abraham Lincoln, and pets, a book titled "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog" should be a winner. Times have changed, and Tolkien provides us with a missing medieval codex that contains a cryptic message pointing to the location of an encrypted medieval treasure, a courtroom drama, a mystery bordering on a locked room puzzle, a Second World War atrocity, and even a few stray Nazis. Throw in a pinch of sibling rivalry and a little romance and it's hard to think of anything left out save perhaps some recipes and a cat.

The book is set in 1959, largely for narrative convenience, as that year predates the total abolition of the death penalty in England. Stephen Cade, younger son of a famous historian and war hero, is on trial for his life for the murder of his father, found shot through the head behind the locked door of his study in his classic country house. A small cast of possible suspects is also in residence - ex-sergeant Ritter, who served by Professor Cade's side in France; Ritter's French wife; Silas, Cade's elder and adopted son; and two young women, Sasha Vigne, the professor's beautiful though badly scarred assistant, and Mary, Stephen's actress girlfriend. Though Silas and Stephen both have the same motive for killing the old man who was about to change his will and disinherit the pair, the evidence points more strongly against Stephen and he is charged and brought to trial. The judge and the barrister leading the case for the Crown are out for blood and his prospects are dim.

In the promotional material accompanying the book, Simon Tolkien remarks that he has set the book back in time partly because he feels that there is "an old-fashioned quality to [his] writing that makes the 1950s a good fit" for him. The narrative is indeed quite old-fashioned, especially in Tolkien's use of the strategy of the omniscient narrator. We know not only what every character is doing, but what they are thinking at the time, what they thought earlier on, and how they feel about it all. Nothing is really left for the reader to speculate about and as a result, the revelation of the true culprit comes as no surprise. Otherwise, however, there is no real sense of period - there is no pressing sense of a particular moment in history aside from the issue of capital punishment. Even the war appears as no more present a memory for the characters than it might today.

The promotional material also makes ample use of Simon Tolkien's family connections. He is the grandson of JRR Tolkien, and perhaps rather more is made of the connection than is wise for an author trying to establish an independent identity. He is, however, unlikely to be confused with his illustrious forebear as THE INHERITANCE owes its inspiration to other, less epic writers, like Dan Brown and John Grisham and its author treads on no hobbit's furry toes in pursuit of his own literary career.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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